Grieving Loss When Your Loved One is Still Living

Navigating the Gnarled Nuances of Ambiguous Grief

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Grief is uncomfortable. Grief is brutal and beautiful all at once. Over the past year, I have become a reluctant student of grief. However, this isn’t the kind of grief with which most of us are familiar. This is a particular sort, sometimes known as “Ambiguous” grief – experienced when you lose a loved one, but not to death. Maybe it was betrayal, divorce, illness, addiction, or an accident. However your loved one was “lost” to you, the common denominator is that they are still living. The person you knew and loved hasn’t died, they just aren’t the same person anymore. This kind of grief breaks you open and changes you. For me, it has shifted how I see the future AND reflect on the past. It doesn’t allow me to dream of the future with my loved one, or rejoice in happy memories of our past – doing so brings too much pain. Ambiguous grief is torture. I know that many people reading today might find this confusing, likely because you haven’t experienced this kind of grief – and I’m glad for you.

You don’t want this.

For those that have, or are are presently walking this path, you are likely reading intently. Perhaps even grateful to have your feelings understood and NAMED!

My Ambiguous Grief began in late 2016 when I learned that my beloved husband of 18 years was deeply embedded in a double life. To say I was heartbroken doesn’t do justice to my profound pain, and the far-reaching destruction that has resulted. Over a year later, I still struggle to put words to what I felt upon discovery, and how I feel today knowing of the tremendous amount of betrayals, and the victimization of so many involved. My children and I bearing the biggest burden of trying to understand. As the shock of Discovery wore off, my grief set in. I had lost so much in so little time: my marriage, my husband, my trust, my security and my understanding of the world. I began to grieve the loss of the future I had envisioned, but even more painfully, I began to mourn my past. Realizing it wasn’t what I had believed it to be, felt like an ever-present, active earthquake rumbling within me daily. My memories were shifting from non-fiction into fiction, being recatorized in the storage shelves of my struggling mind. It was nearly impossible for my brain to reconcile the man I had loved for 21 years with the man I discovered him to be.

Upon our separation, and as family and friends learned of our impending divorce, I received so much support. Many mirrored the support of “traditional” grief /loss by death. Meals were delivered and care packages arrived. Visitors flew in from all over the country to sit vigil with me in my waning shock and growing grief, taking care of my children while I lay in bed unable to do much else. During this time, I received books, articles, and links all with messages about grief, and suggestions on how to move through it. I attended grief groups and nervously asked questions at lectures. I scoured articles looking for information, specifically a set of instructions on what I needed to do to heal. Over and over I heard “time heals”, but I was desperate to be proactive while the elusive “time” passed. In my search, I learned that they are some wonderful resources available on traditional grief, and that professionals have in fact, identified different types of grief.

The turning point for me was when a friend gifted me the book “Option B” by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant. Through the authors’ sharing, I learned that there is a crucial variable needed to heal grief. RESILIENCE. It was the first breadcrumb I had. I was hopeful to learn more. I came to realize what was missing for me, was how to build resilience when you cannot grieve your loss like traditional grievers do.

With my wound still raw and my mind still unable to make sense of what had happened, I began implementing what I could of the resilience-building tools. However, the traditional suggestions that apply to grievers of death, didn’t apply to me. Even as open-minded and compassionate as I like to think myself to be, there was NO WAY I was going tell fond stories about my husband to keep his memory alive. I certainly would not be starting a scholarship fund in his name, or eulogizing him with touching stories in front of all our family and friends. Those are wonderful things to do in order to embrace grief by death, build resilience, and heal the loss.

But what about my situation?

An embarrassing amount of time was spent in my pajamas seeking answers to that question. How do I build resilience when my love was not preserved by death? I so wanted a “how to” list, something written by a distinguished academic, a veteran grief counselor, an astute therapy professional, or some bereaved soul who had lived this experience.

I was seeking ANYONE who had answers to my desperate situation. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find “How To Grieve the Loss of a Living Loved One” or “A Checklist for Ambiguous Grievers . I knew I needed a methodical way to build resilience from my kind of grief and find my way back to joy (STAT) and in lieu of finding the resources I had hoped for, I was left to essentially figure it out. I vowed to practice self-care and be attuned to what my aching body was telling me. I began meditating to hear the hum of my own heart and worked to stay open to noticing anything that helped relieve the pain, no matter how small and seemingly insignificant.

With time, perspective, and a lot of grace, I was able to reroot myself. It wasn’t easy and I know the path ahead continues, winding and steep. But I am far enough along now that I can look back and see what helped me get here. If you or someone you care about may be experiencing Ambiguous Grief, perhaps some of the tools I used to start healing will help.

These seven tools are not complicated, don’t require you to travel, and won’t cost you anything to implement at home. You can find a detailed description of each ReRooting Tool at the budding online community for Ambiguous Grievers:

There you will find a repository of collected resources, a community that understands, and stories that may resonate. No matter where you are in Ambiguous Grief, know you are not alone and know that you CAN heal.

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